Church’s role isn’t to be ‘party boss,’ telling people how to vote, says bishop

“When church leaders speak on issues such as immigration, poverty, health care, abortion, war or embryonic stem-cell research, we are not telling people how to vote,” writes Miami Archbishop John C. Favalora. “We are reminding them of the moral teachings that should inform their lives, and as a result, their votes.”

The archbishop made the comments in a Sept. 12 column headlined: “Why we don’t take sides on candidates.” He was writing in response to an announcement from the Alliance Defense Fund that it plans a nationwide challenge Sept. 28 to Internal Revenue Service rules that prohibit preaching in support of one candidate over another from the pulpit.

In France, Pope Benedict shows the many dimensions of his ministry

(Cross-posted from Catholic News Service)

Pope Benedict XVI waves to pilgrims as he arrives to celebrate a Mass for the sick at the Marian sanctuaries of Lourdes, France, Sept. 15. The pope was in Lourdes primarily to mark the 150th anniversary of Mary's appearances to St. Bernadette Soubirous. (CNS/Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI waves to pilgrims as he arrives to celebrate a Mass for the sick at the Marian sanctuaries of Lourdes, France, Sept. 15. The pope was in Lourdes primarily to mark the 150th anniversary of Mary's appearances to St. Bernadette Soubirous. (CNS/Reuters)

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

LOURDES, France (CNS) — Being pope is not a one-dimensional job, a fact that was clearly evident during Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day visit to France.

Arriving in Paris Sept. 12, the pope first engaged in an important political encounter that attempted to build on the new openness shown the church by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Next, in a brief meeting with Jews, he managed to capsulize in 20 graceful lines the church’s respect for Judaism and its firm rejection of anti-Semitism.

That evening, the pope slipped into his academic role and delivered a lecture on monasticism’s influence on Western civilization to 700 scholars and intellectuals.

He then switched gears and led vespers in Notre Dame Cathedral with priests and religious, emphasizing that while their ranks may be thinning their role in the church has lost none of its value and, indeed, is irreplaceable.

Finally, he stepped outside and energized a waiting crowd of 40,000 young people, drawing roars of approval when he said the church needs them and has confidence in them.

It was a whirlwind beginning and demonstrated a remarkable pastoral versatility on the part of the 81-year-old pontiff.

The next day, after celebrating Mass for a larger-than-expected crowd in Paris, he went to Lourdes and showed another side of his role as universal pastor — a Marian side.

It’s no secret that, as a theologian and bishop, Pope Benedict was not always comfortable with Marian devotion and claims of apparitions. But over the years he has widened his views, saying in 2002 that, “the older I am, the more important the mother of God is to me.”

So at Lourdes pilgrims heard the scholarly pope preach the value of “humble and intense prayer” like the rosary. He told his listeners that devotion to Mary was not a form of “pious infantilism” but an expression of spiritual maturity.

When he took a drink from the Lourdes spring that many pilgrims believe to be the font of miraculous cures, he was demonstrating that the Christian lives by simple signs and symbols as well as by theological ideas.

The pope’s trip to Lourdes was bound to be compared to Pope John Paul II’s moving visit to the shrine in 2004. Ailing and unsteady, the late pope had to ask for help on the altar; it was his last foreign trip.

Pope Benedict was not a personal witness to suffering like his predecessor, but he left no doubt that ministry to the sick is a benchmark of Catholicism.

At his Mass with thousands of sick people Sept. 15, the final day of his visit, he thanked Catholics at Lourdes and all over the world who volunteer their time and effort to help the infirm.

That highlighted a key theme of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, one he has underlined in encyclicals but which is sometimes overlooked: that personal charity — love in action — is the ultimate expression of faith in Jesus Christ.

Another difference between Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul surfaced during the visit. The late pope, on his first trip to France in 1980, sternly critiqued the French drift from the faith, asking Catholics, “France, the eldest daughter of the church, are you faithful to the promise of your baptism?”

Pope Benedict took a softer approach, alluding to pastoral problems but keeping the focus on the positive — for example, the enthusiastic crowd of 260,000 people at his Paris liturgy. In his final talk to French Catholics, he praised them for their “firm faith” and said he had been likewise encouraged by the strong turnout of youths at a Paris vigil.

Where he offered more instructional advice was in his talk to French bishops. He touched on a sore point when he urged the bishops to show flexibility toward traditionalists who want to take advantage of his 2007 rule change on the use of the Tridentine rite, the Mass rite used before the Second Vatican Council.

As a whole, though, the pope framed his message in optimistic terms. Whether talking to politicians, pastoral workers, scholars, the sick or the young, he emphasized that the church is at home in France, and its voice — including the voice of prayer — must continue to be heard.

Many countries represented, but one church revealed

Whenever I have attended work-related educational seminars in the past, I’ve always been blessed with the added bonus of meeting others with diverse backgrounds. The Church Up Close: Covering Catholicism in the Age of Benedict XVI, held Sept. 8-14 at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross School of Church Communications in Rome, provided not only a cross section of personalities, but cultures as well.

The professional journalists who attended the seminar with me traveled to Rome from six of the world’s seven continents. They represented secular and religious news organizations and ranged in age and experience by many decades.

As we collectively roamed the ancient city in search of Catholic history and absorbed theology being taught by scholars in the university’s classrooms, we discovered differences and similarities in how we do our jobs, live our lives and view our faith.

Some of the journalists aggressively pressed Vatican officials for answers about what was learned from the recent sexual-abuse crisis of the Catholic Church, while others wanted concrete explanations about church positions on abortion, homosexuality and contraception.

Individual techniques also ranged. Some took a more subtle approach in getting their sources to talk, while others employed a more abrasive manner. When it came down to it, we were all looking for the same thing.

During our seven days together, we learned many things about one anothers culture, political ideology, religious traditions, levels of curiosity, and places of business.

But, like the millions of faithful in the thousands of Catholic parishes all over the globe, we journalists were all searching for the same thing — the truth.

Catholic Charities USA’s annual gathering will keep poverty in forefront

Poverty grew in the U.S. in 2007, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics as reported in our story last month.

The data show that 12.5 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2007. That’s a slight increase from 2006. Since 2002, the poverty rate has been virtually unchanged, fluctuating between 12.1 percent and 12.7 percent.

Those percentages translate into one in eight Americans living in poverty.

Some interesting stats from the most recent government poverty report show:

— A family of four with an income of $21,203 or less is considered to be poor.

— 10.9 percent of people in poverty held full-time jobs all year.

— 58.9 percent of children living in female-headed households lived in poverty.

The difficulties posed by poverty in a land of plenty is being held up as a major election campaign issue by an interdenominational group of religious leaders and organizations, including Catholic Charities USA. In addition, the agency has called for cutting poverty in half by 2020 through its Campaign to Reduce Poverty in America.

It’s no small task. Still, Precious Blood Father Clarence Williams, director for racial equality and diversity at Catholic Charities USA, told us last week that such work is a requirement of the Catholic faith.

“In ‘Faithful Citizenship’ we’re called to find our voice. If we speak up, (elected officials) will listen because our voice has influence,” he said.

When Catholic Charities USA convenes for its national gathering in New Orleans Sept. 25-28, workshops and programs will look at ways to better support people in poverty and to help them rise into the middle class.

“Jesus’ life speaks to poverty and marginalization,” Father Williams said. “Whether in housing or the justice system, Jesus’ life was about being a witness in the depths of society where we find the poor, the aged, the dispossessed.”